I feel whelmed...?
October 8, 2006 11:42 PM   Subscribe

Why is it that I can be overwhelmed or underwhelmed, but not whelmed?
posted by purplefiber to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Says who?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:44 PM on October 8, 2006

good question.... also in the same vein [derail], when does does one have hability? I'm sure it's based off of ability, but where does "rehabilitate" come from?
posted by trinarian at 11:51 PM on October 8, 2006

because whelmed is what linguists call a "cranberry" morpheme. you know, blackberries are black, but cranberries are... what is cran?

i don't know the details but presumably whelm used to be a verb. it has dropped out of the languages, but two adjectives derived from it--overwhelmed and underwhelmed--still exist.
posted by tabulem at 11:58 PM on October 8, 2006

dictionary.com places the origin of whelm at 1250–1300, overwhelm at 1300–50 and underwhelm at 1945-50.

That suggests to me that underwhelm is a back-formation, and that whelm and overwhelm are the "real" words here. I'd be curious to know when whelm fell into disuse, though.
posted by Leon at 12:02 AM on October 9, 2006

A cran(e) is a bird that lives in marshes, just like the bushes that grow cranberries.

It's also Mr. Miyagi's secret weapon.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:09 AM on October 9, 2006

Since Pollomacho got it right away, I'll address on the derail:
habile and able both descend from the latin word habilis, or "handy".
posted by Humanzee at 12:12 AM on October 9, 2006

"Underwhelmed" is just a jocular formation from "overwhelmed". It's no more used seriously than "gruntled".

But according to the OED to be whelmed is to be submerged or engulfed. So why do we need the "over" part?

Nobody says that they've been "oversubmerged", or "overengulfed", do they? If you've been submerged, there's not much more under you can be. It seems like a double emphasis. But perhaps that's just because it sounds more serious to be "over-" something, along with words like "overcome" or "overthrown".

Perhaps "overwhelmed" is the "ATM-machine" of its era and Early-English curmudgeons went around complaining that the proper word was just "whelmed", no need for the "over", and what were they teaching the kids in school these days.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:23 AM on October 9, 2006 [3 favorites]

I think the idea is that whelmed simply means submerged while overwhelmed means that you were submerged by waves crashing over the bow.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:28 AM on October 9, 2006

Why can things be both flamable, as well as inflamable?

Rhetoric. The answer is: Because English is like that.
posted by Goofyy at 12:43 AM on October 9, 2006

"She was underwhelmed if that's a word
But I know it's not cause I looked it up..."

If you're a Sloan fan like me, your immediate thought in response was 'underhwelmed is not a word'. But reading this thread I'm no longer certain.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:45 AM on October 9, 2006

as an aside, I've always liked flammable/inflammable. As I heard it, the original word was inflammable, which comes from inflame. But that often led to confusion, since it's not much of a stretch to infer the exact opposite. Flammable is unambiguous.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:55 AM on October 9, 2006

No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.

(William Cowper, The Castaway)

I knew not why, - but know that sadness dwells
On Mermaids - whether that they ring the knells
Of seamen whelm'd in chasms of the mid-main,
As poets sing; or that it is a pain
To know the dusk depths of the ponderous sea,
The miles profound of solid green, and be
With loath'd cold fishes, far from man - or what; -
I know the sadness but the cause know not.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins, A Vision of the Mermaids)

So the short answer is yes, you can be whelmed. But it is a piece of poetic diction, not generally used in everyday speech.

(Interesting, btw, that both Cowper and Hopkins use 'whelmed' to describe a mental as well as a physical state. I suspect Hopkins is referencing Cowper here, since 'The Castaway' is one of the greatest poems ever written about mental illness, and would certainly have been familiar to Hopkins.)
posted by verstegan at 1:39 AM on October 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Just to quote the full OED entry for "whelm" (for completeness and not available for free):

whelm |(h)welm|

verb [ trans. ] archaic or poetic/literary
engulf, submerge, or bury (someone or something) : a swimmer whelmed in a raging storm.
• [ intrans. ] flow or heap up abundantly : the brook whelmed up from its source.

noun archaic or poetic/literary
an act or instance of flowing or heaping up abundantly; a surge : the whelm of the tide.

ORIGIN Middle English : representing an Old English form parallel to hwelfan [overturn (a vessel).]

posted by TrashyRambo at 5:17 AM on October 9, 2006

Tolkien uses "whelmed" transitively, to describe what a large army did to a small one in battle. Tolkien speaks in archaicisms, however, so it shouldn't count as a "modern" usage.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:09 AM on October 9, 2006

I've always liked flammable/inflammable.

Trust me, that pair cause huge problems when trying to discuss chemical properties with firefighters who's first language is not English (over the phone, in the middle of the twenty other things he's trying to manage). We always use flamable and non-flamable. Inflamable is one construction, that while charming, is actively dangerous if you use it at the wrong time.
posted by bonehead at 7:36 AM on October 9, 2006

All depends on use, which is how language works. I'd guess that "whelm" was more commonly used literally, and once seafaring became less important to society (and it once truly was central) it fell out of use. Overwhelm was used metaphorically to describe the feeling of being drowned or losing control in a current of information or emotion.

Underwhelm I have only ever used or heard used humorously, but it seems to have gained or be gaining enough familiarity that it's no longer really seen as funny. I would say the reason it's gained usage is that it is useful, i.e., it expresses a distinct thought that isn't as well-expressed by other words. Underwhelmed means you expected more power and that feeling of being lost in a current (but in a good way), but the event didn't deliver - IME usually a performance or piece of art.
posted by mdn at 7:52 AM on October 9, 2006

It's honestly a surprise to me that people are saying that underwhelm isn't used seriously; I thought it was a long-ago accepted part of the language. I'm not sure why I would have such a different attitude; my best guess is that I spent a few years more or less in the Hollywood culture in Los Angeles, where underwhelm is used constantly in reference to one's feelng about an actor's performance, or a whole film.
posted by bingo at 8:07 AM on October 9, 2006

...which on more closer preview, was covered by mdn's answer. All I'm adding, I guess, is that within subcultures in which the effectiveness of a performance or art are constantly discussed out loud, there's a lot more opportunity for its use. But since southern California has already originated plenty of slang that made its way across the country (if not the ocean), I predict that 'underwhelmed,' if it hasn't already reached your hometown, is speedily on its way.
posted by bingo at 8:11 AM on October 9, 2006

Answering a question with a question: Why can you only wreak havoc? Nobody ever wreaks prosperity.
posted by Cranialtorque at 9:50 AM on October 9, 2006

great answers all!
bingo: i suppose a whelming performance would be an ideal one, would it not? an overwhelming performance might be a little over the top, and an underwhelming one wouldn't meet expectations. But a whelming performance would engulf without overpowering.
posted by purplefiber at 9:56 AM on October 9, 2006

You're whelmed (submerged in your experience) all the time, except when you are underwhelmed or overwhelmed. Therefore, there's no reason to use it as a distinguishing descriptor. Do you ever describe yourself as "oxygenated"?
posted by Aquaman at 10:01 AM on October 9, 2006

purplefiber: i suppose a whelming performance would be an ideal one, would it not?

This becomes more of a philosophical question about the purpose of art. If a reviewer watches 'The Color Purple' and describes himself as 'overwhelmed with emotion,' is he saying that something about the production was excessive? Sometimes the audience is supposed to be overwhelmed, and sometimes the audience desires to be overwhelmed.

Aquaman: Do you ever describe yourself as "oxygenated"?

No, but neither do I describe myself as 'overoxygenated' or 'underoxygenated' (or even 'deoxygenated,'). I do, however, describe myself as 'dehydrated' as well as 'hydrated,' and I'm aware that it's possible for me to become 'overhydrated' or 'superhydrated.'
posted by bingo at 10:50 AM on October 9, 2006

Right, but you almost never refer to yourself as "correctly oxygenated". Hence my point. We're "whelmed" ALL the time, except for those notable moments when we're not.
posted by Aquaman at 2:00 PM on October 9, 2006

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